If there is one thing you have to associate with Hanoi it’s bún chả – not the traffic chaos, or the old quarter, but bún chả. It’s the meal of Hanoi.
a succession of plates is laid out on the table, two types of charcoal grilled pork – thin fatty streaks and little burgers the size of flattened golf balls. Accompanied by a plate of room temperature bún, – vermicelli rice noodles – a bowl of nước chấm and tart pickled papaya, a huge overflowing bowl of green leaves, herbs and beansprouts. Lastly, diced chilli and garlic to personalise the nước chấm.
Bún chả is everywhere in Hanoi, there are the tell-tale signs for those that seek it – the thick smoke caused by the pork fat dripping on the open coals which pervade all around the streets and the ladies sitting underneath the plumes of billowing smoke with cardboard fans incessantly waving at the coals to keep the heat up and flipping the cages filled with marinated pork strips.
It’s a thankless task and in the peak of the summer heat the bún chả ladies wear full length shirts, hats and gloves to protect themselves from the sun, sitting over hot coals in thirty-five or more degree weather.
It’s for a good cause as the whole city seems to be obsessed with bún chả – a meal only eaten at lunchtimes, many popular places will only be open from around 11-3 and you will more than likely have to wait for a seat in a lot of places.
The concept is typical of Vietnamese cuisine, a mixture of five elements; spicy, sour, bitter, salty & sweet which also work with the different gastronomic senses – sight, smell taste and so on.
Bún chả works on all levels of Vietnamese food philosophy – The hot chargrilled pork is paired with room temperature soft bún noodles, there is sourness from the nước chấm and spiciness from the chilli with is fresh flavours from the mix of Vietnamese herbs that are present with many dishes. Food harmony.
Some restaurants will also sell fried spring rolls, known in the northern provinces (around Hanoi) as nem or nem ran. They are a popular addition to bún chả, adding some differing flavour and texture. One quite famous place in Hanoi sells nem cua an insanely moreish fried crab spring roll. Whilst the restaurant is expensive by bún chả standards, the nem cua is the stuff dreams are made of.
Where to eat
Possibly the most famous bún chả restaurant is Bun Cha Nem Cua Be Dac Kim at the north end of Hàng Mành – They are well known as they are featured in The Lonely Planet. The cost is expensive, around 90’000VND per person but the portions are huge, the crab spring rolls are delicious and they are open till around six in the evening, which in unusual as most places close around three at the latest. Basic English spoken.
A good spot for al-fresco bún chả is at 34 Hàng Than, a bit further north than most tourists venture in the old quarter but worth the extra walk. bún chả, nem and tra da for around 50’000VND per person. Open lunchtime only and popular with locals.
If you’re around the area of the temple of literature there’s heaps of bún chả places around – 9 Văn Miếu was memorable and cheaper than in the old quarter.
Some useful phrases
Sin chow – hello
Mot – one
Hai – two
Gam urn – thank you
Tra da – iced tea, a popular and cheap drink to accompany meals and usually available at hole in the wall restaurants (pronounced cha)
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